Barrett Students Gain Understanding and Appreciation of Moroccan Culture

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March 25, 2019

Did you know that Barrett Honors College offered the opportunity to participate in five honors-only Global Intensive Experiences in 2019?

GIE trips are shorter and more affordable than traditional summer study abroad programs, but offer similar benefits, including high quality academic programs led by experienced Honors Faculty Fellows, access to cultural experiences that would be difficult to get as an individual traveler, and courses for honors credit.

The 2019 GIE program includes trips to Morocco, Turkey, Iceland, Ireland and Trinidad and Tobago.

The first Barrett GIE program in Africa took students to Morocco over spring break in early March. The program, titled “Destination Tangier – American Literature’s Encounter with Morocco,” focused on the storied cultural history and dynamic present-day activities of northern Morocco.

Honors Faculty Fellows Alex Young and Katherine O’Flaherty led the trip, which included a visit to Tangier, one of the most celebrated cities in global literature, where students explored the city as it has been represented by U.S. and Moroccan authors. The trip also included guided tours of the historic Kasbah, café discussions with authors, meet-and-greets with Moroccan students, and visits to the haunts of famous U.S. writers. In addition, students visited the famous “blue city” of Chefchaouen in the Rif Mountains and Fes, the ancient cultural capital of Morocco.

“Students were respectful and engaged travelers, coming away with an enthusiastic appreciation of Moroccan culture and the long tradition of exchange between U.S. and Moroccan literary culture,” said Young, who taught at the American School of Tangier from 2007 to 2009.

The Barrett contingent participated in a seminar in Fes with cultural studies and English scholar Prof. Sadik Rddad and a literary reading in Tangier with media studies scholar and award-winning novelist Youssouf Amine Elalamy. They also attended events with the American School of Tangier and the Cinematheque de Tangier.

Maya Shrikant in Morocco

Barrett Honors College student Maya Shrikant in Morocco.





Maya Shrikant, a Barrett student majoring in biological sciences, documented the trip in a blog. Here we share one of Shrikant’s blog entries that highlights her insights about the experience and what she gained from it.

Comfortably Uncomfortable

This spring break, I had a once once-in-a-lifetime chance to travel with Honors Faculty Fellow Dr. Alex Young to the Moroccan cities of Tangier, Chefchaouen, and Fes as part of his upper-division honors course, “Destination Tangier: American Literature’s Encounter with Morocco.” I am so grateful I had this opportunity. My eyes have been opened to places, cultures, and peoples that I now want to continue learning more about. I feel that my experiences can be explored through two statements made by the two Morocccan scholars we met on our travels, Professor Sadik Rddad and Youssouf Amine Elalamy. Their words resonated with me throughout our time in Morocco.

When he was reflecting on American travelers in Fes, Professor Rddad said “When traveling for such a short time, you often learn more about your own culture than the culture that you’re visiting. And that is okay.” Those words moved me as I observed Moroccans and Americans during our travels. Drinking mint tea at the cafes, as Tangier moved slowly before our eyes, was my favorite part of our time in Morocco. The way locals unapologetically stared at us like zoo animals, embraced one another on the streets and sparked conversation spontaneously with strangers was refreshing. It was all very human.

Our guide, Mourad, talked very openly about the classes of people in Moroccan society (Berbers, Moorish and Andalusians) because he was not concerned about being politically correct. In the end Moroccans are people and the way that Mourad spoke about them was not regimented, confined or restricted. This was a theme I saw repeating throughout our time visiting Morocco and in the blunt and rather striking language Mohammed Choukri, one of the authors we read in class, uses in For Bread Alone.

I saw that Moroccans rarely cared what onlookers thought of their actions and minded their own business for the most part. In the U.S. we are so sterile, so correct, so concerned with what other people may think about what we’re doing that we don’t end up doing the things we want. When talking to students during our visit to the American School of Tangier, I asked some of the non-Moroccan students if they ever felt out of place because they don’t speak the language and don’t look like typical Moroccans. Their responses were very surprising to me as they all said no. They explained that everyone in Morocco was unique, in the way they look, the way they speak and the way they act. And, no one cares what you do as long as you aren’t burdening them. With such a melting pot, they said they felt as if they were just another ingredient diversifying the palate of Morocco. Throughout our stay, I came to see they were right. Morocco itself is a misfit country; the country is unique from the rest of Africa in culture, has Spanish and French influence from colonialism and geographic proximity, and is more liberal than other Islamic countries.

I also learned that the pace of life is very different in Morocco. Mourad’s explanations of the workday in Morocco showed the value of leisurely mornings, family time at lunch, and time for prayer in the culture. Overall, it seemed Moroccans felt no sense of urgency walking around in any of the cities we visited (unless it was to run out of the way of donkey carts in Fes). I realized that a lot of the worries surrounding work that we have in the U.S. are minor, and that the mentality of “living to work” is unhealthy. Moroccan people seemed happier, better grounded, and occasionally  consumed about bigger issues than the first world problems that we lose too much sleep about.

In his discussion with us at Cinematheque de Tanger, scholar and novelist Youssouf Amien Elalamy also said something that made me reflect both on Morocco and on my own identity. Thinking back on his own travels in the United States, he said “I never felt more proud to be Moroccan than when I was in New York.” Professor Elalamy reminds me a lot of my dad, who immigrated to New York in the 1980s. My dad felt the same strong pride in being Indian when he moved away from his roots for the first time. Elalamy’s stories about his dancing abilities and being a chick-magnet because his unique ethnic looks intrigued older, upper west side women were hilarious. Not only were they funny, but they also hinted at an aspect of the orientalist stereotypic we discussed in class. This was a real-life example of how westerners placed a romantic aura around Elalamy because he was from Morocco (perhaps they thought he must rub gold lamps and burn incense at all times in his tapestry covered home, fragrant from exotic spices).

Elalamy’s pride in Morocco and respect for the interconnectivity of American and Moroccan culture was something different than what I found when I read authors like William Burroughs and Mohammed Choukri in class. Burroughs’ chaotic descriptions of Tangier, riddled with warnings of how to approach the city as an outsider, had me worried on the plane to Tangier of the things we would see and the experiences we might encounter. Choukri’s text was graphic, violent and told the story of  a street kid who suffered and clawed his way through Morocco to survive.

Elalamy’s story is one that gives a voice to a different population of Moroccans. He explained that after writing his book, he had educated, young Moroccans thank him for writing a story about a Moroccan they could recognize. Elalamy’s struggle was for education rather than for food. A struggle for recognition rather than avoiding arrest. A struggle for becoming a writer rather than finding a way to survive. Elalamy’s story is important and made me reflect on the kinds of stories that need to be told by Moroccans, and heard by Americans. It isn’t just the subaltern’s stories, it’s all Moroccans’ stories that need to be heard, because there are simply not enough of them available, especially in places like the United States.

Personally I feel that Professor Rddad’s thoughts about learning the dualities and differences between cultures sums up my entire trip experience. I feel that I have barely scratched the surface of Morocco, but through that scratch I have been able to dig deeper into my own identities. I feel very proud to be an ethnically unique American, and appreciate it even more when I travel to places like Morocco where my experiences challenge my identity, as Elalamy said. This trip inspired a lot of self-reflection, and I look forward to carrying these memories into the remainder of class and the remainder of my life. I am most definitely traveling back to Morocco, where I am now comfortable being uncomfortable.



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